Scott McClellan is making more news outside of the White House than he ever did when he was there. With the release of What Happened, pundits and politicians alike are questioning his motives and veracity. But putting all that aside, how well did this communications professional handle his own communications?
With his background as a long-time political spokesman and presidential press secretary, McClellan no doubt considered the ramifications of his actions beforehand. But by failing to adhere to some basic tenets of high-stakes communications, he may have inflicted unnecessary and long-lasting harm to his personal brand.
For example, if he had waited to publish his memoir until after the November elections, he could have avoided the vicious counterattack mounted by the White House and its allies. Many of the same current and former White House staffers and GOP professionals now pummeling him as disgruntled and disingenuous might have remained silent after the election, which could as easily-and maybe correctly-be taken as supportive of the messages he is trying to convey in his book.
Instead, McClellan has made himself radioactive with Republicans. Some in the GOP may have actually agreed with his perceptions of White House goings on once President Bush returned to Crawford to resume clearing brush. Few, if any, can afford to come to his defense now.
Any Democratic support for McClellan will be fleeting. Senators Clinton and Obama are not going to offer lasting praise to any White House press secretary who outs inner-circle dirty laundry. Democratic congressional leaders will take their leads from their party's presidential candidates and follow suit. Despite the fodder about the Bush administration he has supplied liberal bloggers and commentators, it is doubtful that either group will now embrace McClellan.
To compound his problem, by labeling the national media gullible and gutless during the run-up to the Iraq war, McClellan has alienated the very audience which may have rallied to his support, reinforcing his premise that White House communications need to be as transparent as possible. Had his book come out after the election, the news media may have viewed it as a historical, insightful overview of some very difficult times for the country.
Had he timed publication more carefully, many in news business may have even sympathized with McClellan, despite his attacks on them, because many in the Washington press corps have a high personal regard for him, and they empathize with the situation he was placed in. As Steven Colbert and others can attest, the media does not take kindly to rebuke.
McClellan knows how to generate news coverage. If he believed that the buzz he would create by releasing his book now would help him sell it, he was probably right. If he thought he could release his book in the current political climate without losing allies, damaging his political connections, or sullying his reputation, he chose a poor strategy.
Richard S. Levick is president and CEO of litigation and crisis communications firm Levick Strategic Communications and co-author of Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference.